What Did John Believe?

Published by DonDavidson on

On the Sunday after Jesus was crucified, John’s Gospel tells us that Peter and another disciple—believed to be the apostle John[1]—ran to the tomb where Jesus’s body had been placed and found it empty.[2] Then John 20:8-10 adds this strange, seemingly contradictory statement:

So the other disciple who had first come to the tomb also entered then, and he saw and believed. For they did not yet understand the Scripture, that He must rise from the dead. So the disciples went away again to their own homes.

I have heard lay people, and some pastors, assert that this other disciple—let’s call him John—“saw and believed” that Jesus had been resurrected, but did not yet fully “understand” what that meant. That interpretation feels strained to the point of being nonsensical, especially in light of verse ten, which says that the two disciples simply went home. Why would they have such a nonchalant attitude if they truly believed Jesus had risen from the dead? A simpler explanation makes much more sense and eliminates these problems entirely.

If we back up to the beginning of chapter 20 of John’s Gospel, we find the familiar story of Mary Magdalene going to the tomb early on Sunday morning, only to find the stone rolled away and the tomb empty.[3] She hurried to Peter and John and told them, “They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we do not know where they have put Him.”[4] Luke’s Gospel says that the disciples did not believe the women’s report, and regarded it as “nonsense.”[5] After all, who would want to steal a corpse—especially the corpse of a criminal who had just been executed a few days earlier? A grave robber might steal valuables from a corpse, but not the corpse itself.

Nevertheless, Peter and John immediately ran to the tomb and found it exactly as Mary had described—the tomb was empty and Jesus’s body was gone.

What John “saw and believed” was that Mary’s report was indeed accurate—the tomb was in fact empty and Jesus’s body had disappeared. What he did not yet understand, of course, was that Jesus’s body was missing because he had been resurrected.

I discuss this and many other apparent discrepancies regarding the stories of Jesus’s resurrection in Chapter Fifteen of my book, Beyond Shallow Faith, entitled “Making Sense of the Resurrection Stories,” in which I reconcile the six resurrection accounts in the New Testament[6] to obtain a consistent narrative of what I believe happened after Jesus rose from the grave. You can read a brief excerpt from that chapter here. The book is available on Amazon.com in both paperback and e-book formats.

[1]. John, Son of Zebedee, was probably the youngest of the twelve apostles and the author of John’s Gospel, as well as 1 John and Revelation. (There is considerable doubt about his authorship of 2nd and 3rd John.) Following Jesus’ resurrection, John is believed to spent most of his remaining years in Ephesus, in Asia Minor, been exiled to the Mediterranean island of Patmos under the Roman Emperor Domitian (see Revelation 1:9), and died of old age.

[2]. See John 20:3-7. Luke 24:12 is similar, but only mentions Peter.

[3]. John’s Gospel mentions only Mary Magdalene, but the other Gospels say that multiple women went to the tomb. That is undoubtedly correct, since Mary Magdalene would have been unlikely to undertake such a trip alone so early in the morning.  In addition, John 20:2 implies that other women were with Mary, since she says “we do not know where they have put Him.” (Emphasis added)

[4]. John 20:2

[5]. Luke 24:11

[6]. Matthew 28:1-20, Mark 16:1-8, Luke 24:1-53, John 20:1-21:25, Acts 1:1-11, and 1 Corinthians 15:3-8


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *